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April 18, 2014

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Education:

When bathrooms open, so can the school

Charter school $27,000 in water line costs away from welcoming students

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Leila Navidi

Marlo Tsuchiyama, founder and president of the board of trustees of Silver Sands Montessori Charter School, for two years has jumped through procedural hoops to get the school opened. “Not opening is not an option,” she says.

Silver Sands Montessori Charter School

The new Silver Sands Montessori Charter School has almost everything it needs to open its doors in August: students, teachers and an office building in a Henderson executive park.

What’s missing is the $27,000 Henderson wants to hook up the additional water lines for the additional toilets required to satisfy the health code.

After 2 1/2 years of meetings, paperwork and red tape, the finish line was in sight for Silver Sands, which is sponsored by the State Board of Education. But the latest hurdle is threatening plans to open the campus in August. And it highlights the challenges such fledgling programs face, even as the U.S. Education Department urges states to make it easier for charter schools to launch.

Charter schools receive the same per-pupil funding from the state as traditional public schools, but operate with greater freedom in staffing, instructional methods and daily operations. However, charter schools must use buildings that meet the same health and safety codes as regular campuses, which makes finding appropriate facilities typically the biggest challenge for organizing committees.

For more than two years Marlo Tsuchiyama, president of Silver Sands’ board of trustees, has been jumping through the requisite application hoops, including building community support and developing a curriculum based on the Montessori philosophy, which emphasizes self-directed learning. Her two older children have thrived at a private Montessori elementary school, where tuition is about $9,000 annually. But Tsuchiyama realized the cost was prohibitive for many families, and that a charter school following a similar educational philosophy would likely be a popular alternative.

Indeed, there’s been no shortage of interest in Silver Sands. There are waiting lists for nearly all of the grades. The plan is to have six classrooms, limiting the ratio to 24 students per teacher in

pre-k and kindergarten and a 30-to-1 ratio in grades 1-5.

Silver Sands plans to move into a converted office complex on Whitney Mesa Drive at Mountain Vista Street in Henderson. But the four existing bathrooms aren’t enough to support the expected 150 students, and four bathrooms must be added. That’s going to cost about $14,000, Tsuchiyama said. The cost becomes prohibitive when coupled with the city’s hookup charges, which include a $180 fee per student, the standard formula for public and private schools. That will cost the school an additional $27,000.

The one-time fee helps offset the costs of treating the additional wastewater produced as a result of the increase in use. Commercial businesses pay a fee per fixture ($450 for a tanning salon or veterinarian’s office, for example). But schools, because of the high volume, are charged per student.

If the city were willing to wait to be paid, the project would already be under way, Tsuchiyama said. But the fees are due in full upfront, and her request to pay off the cost in installments was denied.

“Everyone at the city has been incredibly nice about it, but they say there’s nothing they can do,” Tsuchiyama. “They just keep telling me the system isn’t set up for payment plans.”

In fact, city workers managed to bring the fees down from an original high of about $40,000, after finding some existing credits that had been applied to the building, said Kathleen Richards, the Utility Services Department’s spokeswoman.

But fees “are always collected upfront,” Richards said. She’s not aware of anyone else ever requesting to handle the bill any other way.

Setting up a payment plan for Silver Sands would be particularly risky, if only for the potential P.R. nightmare that might follow. Given that many charter schools struggle with fiscal matters in the first few years of operations, it’s not unimaginable that a program might have difficulty making a requisite utilities payment. If that happened, the city would have little recourse.

“We would do anything else except turn off the water at a school,” Richards said. “That’s something we just do not want to have to do.”

Tsuchiyama said Silver Sands’ families are doing as much fundraising as they can, a tough task given the economic times. So far they’ve collected about $3,000. But she worries that the money won’t come in fast enough to pay the city, have the new bathrooms built and let the school staff move into the building next month — all necessary steps to an on-time start to the academic year.

“We have to raise the money,” Tsuchiyama said. “Not opening is not option.”

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